This story was originally published on September 16, 2015.
Compared to the rest of South Asia, Bangladesh is doing relatively well when it comes to a number of women's-empowerment issues, from girls' access to education to women's political roles. But in one crucial area, the country still fails miserably: child marriage. Bangladesh has the highest rate of child brides under age 15 in the world, according to Human Rights Watch
. Nearly a third of Bangladeshi girls will be married before the age of 15, and 65% will be wed by the age of 18.
"Given how much success some other countries have had at bringing down the rate of child marriage and the increased attention globally to the harms caused by child marriage, Bangladesh’s progress on this issue is disappointing," Heather Barr, senior researcher on women’s rights at Human Rights Watch, told Refinery29.
Child marriage has been illegal
in the region since 1929, but the law is hardly enforced. “In our research, we've never witnessed or heard through second-hand sources of anyone ever being arrested or prosecuted for arranging or performing a child marriage,” said Barr.
There are several factors driving the high rate of child marriage in Bangladesh, according to Barr's research. Though poverty places a huge role, natural disasters, sexual harassment, and social pressures are also high on the list of contributing factors.
The fact that even prosperous Bangladeshi families arrange their daughters' marriages before they are legally allowed to wed is something I know firsthand. My own mother was a child bride at 15.
My mother, Fardowsi, comes from a relatively well-to-do family. She grew up in Dhaka, Bangladesh's capital, and lived a very modern life. She was intelligent, athletic, and several grades ahead in school. She was a tomboy with fiery curly hair and huge doe eyes, and her beauty was hard to miss. She was one of the popular girls in her class. She wore bell-bottoms and tunics instead of saris. She listened to the latest music on the radio and fought with her sister over whose favorite movie star was better. She read voraciously and dreamt of traveling to San Francisco, like her favorite detective character had.
Poverty was clearly not the reason why my maternal grandparents married off my smart mother, full of promise, at just 15 years old. Rather, it was a patriarchal notion of a woman’s place in society that would dictate the opportunities she had in life.
The few black and white photos of my mother as a young bride depict a shy, demure girl, hopeful for the future and content with the new life her parents had chosen for her. Over the years, I’ve asked my mother how she felt on her wedding day. She has a hard time formulating the words, but the overall sentiment seems to be acceptance. In some ways, I don’t think she realizes the gravity of having been married off at such a young age. But that is unsurprising, given that child marriage was common in Bangladesh in the '70s, as it still is today.